Lodi Growers Create A High Standard For Sustainability And Better Market For Their Grapes

Bruce Fry, left, and father Jerry in a vineyard of truly “Old Vine Zin.” The Zinfandel block was planted in 1901. (Photo credit: David Eddy)

Bruce Fry, left, and father Jerry in a vineyard of truly “Old Vine Zin.” The Zinfandel block was planted in 1901. (Photo credit: David Eddy)

If you want to pick up a few tips about sustainability from California winegrape growers, Mohr-Fry Ranches isn’t a bad place to start. The agricultural history of the Mohrs and Frys extends back to the 1850s, when Cornelius Mohr left his job on a whaling ship in the port of San Francisco and began a farming operation on a Spanish land grant in an area south of a town that had just become incorporated, Oakland.

Urban encroachment eventually caused family members to look elsewhere to sustain the growing business. Today, Mohr’s great-grandson Jerry Fry and his son Bruce — who represents the fifth generation — farm nearly 600 acres of mostly winegrapes in the Lodi Appellation south of Sacramento.

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There, they grow a dozen varieties of winegrapes, eight red and four white, everything from Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel. Or, as Jerry puts it, “We’ve got all the wines from A to Z.”

It’s the latter variety, Zinfandel, for which the region is best known, producing 40% of the nation’s total. The Frys are justifiably proud of their Zinfandel, especially the “Old-Vine Zin,” of which one block of vines were planted in 1901, and another 70 years ago or more. Actually, they don’t produce a drop of wine themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar to the oenophiles who descend on the region’s wineries. “It’s not unheard of for wine tasters to ask, not for a given wine, but for a Mohr-Fry Zin,” Bruce says, noting that a few of the wineries take advantage of the fact, adding a Mohr-Fry label to their own.

Playing By The Rules
All of that Zinfandel acreage — plus Sangiovese, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc — about 40% of their total, has been certified sustainable under a Lodi Winegrape Commission program, the Lodi Rules. Launched in 2005 — the Frys were one of the original six growers — the Lodi Rules is a strict program detailing many aspects of a farming enterprise. It is based on the three-legged stool concept of sustainability, each beginning with an “E”: Economic, Environmental and Equitable.

There are 24,000 acres “Certified Green” in the Lodi Appellation, and an additional 6,000 acres have been certified in other regions throughout California. Approximately 20 wineries produce wines bearing the Lodi Rules seal.

“The economic consideration is number one because if it’s not economical you can’t help the environment, or provide social equity either.” - Bruce Fry (Photo credit: David Eddy)

“The economic consideration is number one because if it’s not economical you can’t help the environment, or provide social equity either.” – Bruce Fry (Photo credit: David Eddy)

Standards To Abide By
The Lodi Rules is not just a catchy slogan; it is a 128-page workbook of sustainable winegrowing standards. There are 101 standards, and to be certified you not only need to pass at least 70, you cannot fail any of the six chapters. (For an example of the standards, see “From The Workbook.”)

And while the program is based on self-evaluation, it’s not like growers can skate through with less-than-honest self-assessment, says Bruce Fry. There is random auditing by a third party, Protected Harvest, which is quite thorough. Protected Harvest representatives will ask for such details as information from a certain week’s monitoring sheet detailing practices regarding insects, mildew, vertebrates, etc.

If it seems intrusive, Fry says none of the growers involved mind because it’s grower-based.

“A group of growers, a very diverse group of growers, debated about this for a lot of time,” he says. “It’s not the third-party certifier that’s telling us what to do; it’s kind of like a research project that’s peer-reviewed.”

Scoring A Bonus
Following the Lodi Rules isn’t all about being an environmental do-gooder, Fry says. Besides making your grapes more sought after by many wineries, a few of them actually pay a bonus to growers enrolled in the program. It’s not a huge amount, perhaps $25 to $50 per ton, but it’s worth it, he says. That’s why all of the Frys’ acreage isn’t enrolled, because it only pays to be in the program for those grapes that command premium prices.

There’s nothing wrong with that, Fry says, because it’s important to remember that the first leg of the sustainability stool is Economic.

“You can’t do all these things unless they pencil out. At the end of the day you have to make money to stay in business and pay your employees,” he says. “The economic consideration is number one because if it’s not economical you can’t help the environment, or provide social equity either.”

Besides, what many people fail to realize is that economical and environmental considerations often go hand in hand, he says. For example, the Lodi Rules state that only “essential crop protection” products are used.

“Farmers use pesticides only when needed because they are very expensive to use and apply,” Fry says. “When a grower sprays it’s not because he wants to spend money; it’s because he has to protect his crop.”

Fry says he likes the public relations aspect of the program, but he’s a practical man and that’s certainly not his primary consideration.

“It’s partly there for the consumer, to show how Lodi growers farm,” he says. “But farmers need clean water to irrigate, and good soil. Farmers are going to protect those things because if he doesn’t protect them he will hurt his crop, and that will hurt him economically.”

(Photo credit: David Eddy)

(Photo credit: David Eddy)

Birds Of A Feather
Besides producing Zinfandel grapes from gnarly vines over a century old, Mohr-Fry Ranches is practically something of an avian sanctuary. Visitors are often greeted by a flock of peacocks strolling around the office parking lot and adjacent vineyards.

The peacocks originally came from a nearby zoo, Micke Grove, more than 40 years ago, because of overpopulation at the zoo, and they’ve been allowed the run of the place ever since.

(Photo credit: David Eddy)

(Photo credit: David Eddy)

Other noticeable features are the 10 owl boxes scattered around the 230-acre headquarters ranch. The boxes — some are older classics made of wood, others are of more modern plastic construction — are a hit with the owls, which took up residence almost immediately after the most recent one went up.

The owls pay for their keep nicely, hunting lots of gophers, voles and mice, which is evidenced by all the rodent bones covering the ground below the birdhouses.

But perhaps the most impressive of the birds found on the property is a pair living la vida California. “We’ve got two red-tail hawks that live in that big palm tree over there,” says Jerry Fry, pointing toward his office. “It’s neat to see them take flight each morning.”

The Facts About The Rules

  • The Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing is California’s first third-party-certified sustainable winegrowing program. The original standards were launched in 2005, and a thorough revision was accredited in 2013.
  • The Lodi Rules takes a comprehensive approach to farming that goes beyond just pest management to promote practices that enhance biodiversity, water and air quality, soil health, and employee and community well-being.
  • There are 101 farming practice standards in six chapters: Business Management, Human Resources, Ecosystem Management, Soil Management, Water Management, and Pest Management.
  • The Lodi Rules are designed to lead to measurable improvements in the environmental health of the surrounding ecosystem, society-at-large, and wine quality.
  • All standards have been peer-reviewed by scientists, members of the academic community, and environmental organizations before accreditation by Protected Harvest.
  • Protected Harvest has received Consumers Union’s highest rating as an eco-label certifier.
  • Certification has two components: The Lodi Rules practice standards, and a Pesticide Environmental Assessment System (PEAS) that measure the total impact of all organic and synthetic pesticides used during the year. Growers are audited annually by a third party to verify their farming practices, and may not exceed a maximum number of points calculated using PEAS. Certification is awarded to an individual vineyard annually.
  • A bottle of wine that is at least 85% from certified sustainable vineyards can use the logo on its label.

Source: Lodi Winegrape Commission

From The Workbook
The sixth and final chapter of the Lodi Rules addresses pest management and farming standards. It begins with a broad introduction: “This chapter includes several management plans addressing specific pests and pathogens, which for expediency, may be combined into a single pest and disease management plan document.”

The first section contains the following self-evaluation: “I have a written economic threshold plan containing the following components: guidelines for written monitoring records; frequency and location of monitoring; action thresholds for each pest based on pest numbers, natural enemy type and number considerations, amount of leaf and/or fruit damage present, time of year, canopy vigor, winegrape variety; and the timing of the treatment; and a plan review and update schedule.”

A “Yes” response is rewarded with six points, “No” with zero.

Numerous sections follow, getting down to the nuts and bolts of how the grower deals with everything from spider mites to canker disease. For example, Section 6.3 is titled “Economic Threshold for Leafhoppers,” and includes the following statements, followed by the number of points received for answering in the affirmative.

a. I did not need to treat for leafhoppers this growing season because their numbers did not exceed the treatment thresholds specified in my insect and mite pest management plan. (5 points)
b. I treated for leafhoppers this growing season and the number of nymphs per leaf at the time of treatment was greater than 5 OR I had moderate to heavy leaf damage due to leafhopper feeding and there was a moderate to heavy population of adults present. (5 points)
c. I treated for leafhoppers this growing season and the number of nymphs per leaf at the time of treatment was between 3 and 5. (3 points)
d. I treated for leafhoppers this growing season and the number of nymphs per leaf at the time of treatment was between 1 and 3. (1 point)
e. I treated for leafhoppers when there was less than 1 nymph per leaf. (Fail Chapter)
Source: Lodi Winegrape Commission